Louis Lee Sing and Nafessa Mohammed, Mayor of Port of Spain and Chairman of the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation respectively, are engaged in major public squabbles with Minister of Local Government Chandresh Sharma.
The bone of contention is money to conduct the affairs of the respective local government corporations. The mayor has loudly expressed his dissatisfaction with the allocation given by central government for the running of the city while the chairman and minister are locked in battle over the construction of a new market.
As unseemly as these quarrels have been, I believe they can be beneficial to the advancement of our democracy. For starters, the mayor and the chairman, now in opposition, belong to a party that has dominated central government for over forty years. Under their watch, local government was deliberately kept in an enfeebled position totally dependent on central government. The effect of this is most visible in the neglect of communities in which local government was controlled by the opposition.
Today, with the shoe on the other foot, these two public officials are experiencing what their party leaders made others experience. They are having a taste of their own unpalatable medicine.
If through this experience however they, and the country as a whole, come to appreciate the importance of having strong local government that’s not so totally dependent on central government financing to provide the services required of them, then this would be an important forward step on our democratic journey. But this is not a guaranteed outcome; there is a fly in the ointment.
The new administration is sending mixed signals in its approach to local government. There is no clear indication that it will eschew the past practice of using central government power to dominate local authority and instead seize the opportunity to embed local government as the foundation on which our republican democracy will be built. Indeed, there are contradictory omens.
In its local government manifesto (LGM), the political leader of the ruling party and Prime Minister had this to say to party followers. “All of our supporters need to understand what is at stake here now. If we don’t control local government how will we deliver results? If we don’t control local government, who will be responsible for ensuring that your communities are kept clean? Who will be responsible for ensuring that your neighbourhoods are safe? Who will be responsible for ensuring that your roads are well maintained? Who will be responsible for ensuring that there is a well functioning health centre in your community? Who will be responsible for education, water distribution, pavements, street lighting and a whole host of other issues affecting your communities?” (LGM pg.3).
Here, the political leader’s view of local government is unambiguously stated. According to this view however, in order to receive the services mentioned, local government corporations must be under the control of the same political party controlling central government. This perspective is at odds with other manifesto statements committing the new administration to a genuine participatory democracy and expressing a more progressive view on local government.
For example, on page six of the said manifesto is the following statement. “We will enhance democracy by embracing the philosophy of meaningful Local Government. We maintain that the people are sovereign and that government is the servant of the people. This requires that the people be engaged in discussions on issues that affect their needs as far as possible within the democratic representative system. To this end, we must strive towards a system that is free of any encumbrances that can limit, undermine or marginalise the spirit of total participation.”
These are two very different perspectives. One concentrates power in the hands of central government. It advances the notion that in order for local communities to receive proper services, then the same party must be in control of both central and local governments. This is the philosophy of the former regime.
The other point of view recognizes power as being concentrated in the hands of the people. The people are sovereign and government is the servant of the people. It follows therefore that for meaningful local government to be achieved, it must be empowered to exercise executive control over all matters within its jurisdiction.
Which of these two perspectives will emerge as the hallmark of Mr. Sharma’s tenure as minister of local government? Only time will tell. At this juncture however, there is no evidence to suggest that he is committed to a local government reform agenda that deepens our democracy by empowering people in their respective communities through the devolution of power from central to local government.
On the contrary, his actions to date is more in keeping with the past practice of central government domination rather than being transformational and giving identifiable recognition to the concept of government as servant of a sovereign people. This domination by central government is seen not only in his actions in respect of the market issue but also in the statements in support of his actions expressed by the area’s parliamentary representative. The clear signal here is that all power must reside at the level of central government.
The minister may well argue that his government is committed to the full implementation of the Municipal Corporation Act (1990) which will strengthen local government. We can take him at his word.
But here is the rub. Should the 1990 Act be implemented and local government given the constitutional protection it deserves, then the new administration would have succeeded in closing the circle of governance as expressed by the PM during the campaign. In other words, local government, albeit a somewhat more robust one, will be firmly under the boot of the central government.
Yet, this need not be the case. The administration must be aware that, if the promise of constitution reform to ensure participatory democracy and citizen empowerment is to be fulfilled, then this would require the creation of new institutions and processes that give meaning to these concepts.
Constitutions however, are not only reflected in written text. They are also about the civic norms, values and practices we observe. There is no requirement therefore to await new written text in order to demonstrate commitment to establishing the people empowering democracy repeatedly spoken of by the new administration. In this regard it missed an ideal opportunity to signal its adherence to this commitment when it appointed mayors and chairmen following the recent local government elections. Instead of breaking new ground by choosing these high public officials only from among elected members of the councils, it stuck with the old elitist formula, in the majority of instances, of selecting non-elected members to these offices.
Had it broken new ground, this gesture would have been tangible evidence, albeit a small step, towards recognizing the people as sovereign. Once more we see the interest of the party superseding that of the people, and the interest of central government that of local government. So far, nothing has changed and our democracy remains in an arrested state of development.
Nonetheless, the squabbles between the minister and the political heads of the local corporations, and the fact that the administration is in the early phase of its tenure, provide an opening for a comprehensive debate on a new system of local government.
This debate will have to consider questions such as: How should local government be financed? Should it be self-financing to the maximum degree possible? Should the number of regional corporations be increased? Should any responsibilities, now in the hands of central government, be transferred to the regional corporations? For example, the responsibility for community and/or health centres, to name just two.
What legislative and taxing power should be held by local government? Indeed, how much power should be devolved from central to local governments?
On the issue of enhancing democracy and empowering people, should mayors and chairmen be elected by area residents to their respective posts? Should both local and central governments, adopt participatory budgeting as the method by which each arrives at an annual budget?
For those unfamiliar with this method, it is one which directly involves local people in making decisions on the spending priorities for a defined public budget. It engages residents and community groups, representative of all parts of the community in discussing spending priorities, making spending proposals and voting on them.
In this approach to budget making the voice and priorities of the citizen are made clear and the authorities held accountable. Further, the involvement of the community in this manner has the additional benefits of strengthening democracy, the communities, the nurturing of responsible citizenship while at the same time promoting transparency.
As the government rolls out its constitutional reform agenda, it will have to face all these issues. It is only then we will be able to gauge its true commitment to advancing democracy by entrenching the citizen as sovereign and local government as the bedrock on which that democracy is built.
The Guardian’s editorial of Tuesday, February 10, 2004, focused on the issue of constitutional reform and summarized its position as follows: The country needs to be able to satisfy itself that any constitutional reform proposed or effected is truly in the interest of the citizens and not just of the politicians.
This is a position on which, I believe, all supporters of the democratic ideal can agree. However, the route one chooses to arrive at that destination however may differ. The very editorial offers us an avenue for getting there when it says that any constitutional reform will have to have the approval of the political parties, since Parliament must vote for it. Indeed, continues the editorial, a political consensus is required, since a special majority in Parliament would be required to effect any such reform.
The route chosen by the Guardian while it speaks to opening up the process to other groups and individuals, does not take into account that on such a fundamental issue as a reform of the Constitution we must insist firstly on majority support from among the citizens and only secondarily a majority support in the Parliament. In short, any new constitution must take effect with the approval of the majority of the citizens through a process that is democratic and transparent. It is the citizen, the common man, that must be central to this transformation.
We must therefore have a referendum on constitutional reform. It is too important an issue to be left in the hands of the politicians and other validating elites. Under present conditions, it is not the prerogative of the Executive to decide whether or not there should be a referendum on constitutional reform that is a call every responsible citizen must make!!
Among the many reforms of the constitution that must be undertaken is electoral reform. It is all too clear that the present electoral system produce results that are not supported by large sections of the electorate. Sections too large to be ignored without putting our continued democratic stability at risk. Such results lack the democratic consensus required for both stable government and genuine national development. Our two party system, with each party solidly rooted in a particularly ethnic community, has little chance of producing parliaments that are reflective of the wider national interests. The time has come; I believe, to search for—and create if necessary—an electoral system more appropriate to our needs. One that promotes and enshrines the principle of democratic consensus as a central requirement for the good governance of this country while extending the boundaries of democracy to ensure that the common citizen, the true source of democratic political power, has appropriate mechanisms for exercising control over the executive and the legislature.
To refashion our constitution along these lines will go a long way in meeting the Guardian’s objective of ensuring that any constitutional reform be in the interest of the citizens and not just of the politicians.